Why small countries will always lead in FTTH

By Tom Hausken
This just out today: the FTTH Council Europe reported the European countries with top FTTH penetration. The list is revealing, with Andorra at number 4. Number 4! This means that once again we have to put up with articles asking why the U.S. is lagging tiny Andorra in FTTH penetration.

The council announced that the top 10 countries with more than 10% penetration are: Sweden, Norway, Slovenia, Andorra, Denmark, Iceland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Slovakia, and Finland. Note that the top country, Sweden, only has about 9 million people. Andorra has about 84,000.

Other lists of this type have put countries like Singapore, South Korea, and Iceland at the top of lists of countries with high broadband or FTTH penetration. In the next breath, a policy wonk somewhere will claim that this shows that the U.S. is falling behind these up-and-coming countries. For example, here's a policy report from 2006 doing just that. The U.S. trends toward the OECD average over time as smaller countries fill out the bell curve, but that's ignored. Rather, it's spun as a call for action.

What is never pointed out is that large populations--like the U.S. or the European Union--comprise a set of smaller, more diverse populations. A grade school student knows that, no matter how you define it, the average over the total is somewhere in the middle. Some of the smaller constituents have to end up in the wings. In the U.S., progressive rural coops and wealthier communities can lead the country in fiber penetration, while many tribal lands are far behind even in basic phone service .

Moreover, any student of politics knows that countries like Sweden, Singapore, and South Korea are more inclined to adopt centralized public policies than the U.S. In the U.S., the Administration, Congress, FCC, the courts, each of 50 states, and even municipalities make telecom policy. Some of the municipalities are like Andorra, to be sure, but the overall patchwork is far from centralized, thanks to things like the Bill of Rights and the general Wild West temperament of U.S. public policy.

Policies encouraging substantial investment in FTTH may be a great thing for the U.S. I'm of the view that it's a lot more complicated than that. But whatever your view, please don't say that the U.S. is falling behind because tiny Andorra has greater penetration than the U.S.
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